Locks and keys Featured

7:00pm EDT January 25, 2010

 Since Robert Klein founded Safeguard Properties in 1990, the mortgage industry has undergone significant change. Today, with more than 600 employees and a network of thousands of contractors, Safeguard is the nation’s largest privately held mortgage field services company, and each month, it inspects and maintains more than 1 million defaulted and foreclosed properties nationwide for banks, mortgage servicers and investors.

Klein, the National Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year winner in the services category as well as a regional winner, shared his thoughts with Smart Business about how he communicates with his team and keeps his company on the industry’s cutting edge.

Q: Your business operates nationwide, which doesn’t allow for easy face-to-face meeting with your team. What is your philosophy of people management?

For one thing, we don’t use voice mail during the workday. If someone isn’t in the office, their call is directed to a colleague who picks up the phone on their behalf and takes care of a client’s issue. And we have a receptionist who actually talks to callers. When someone calls Safeguard during business hours, we want them to be greeted by a real person, not a machine. And when our clients need something, they shouldn’t be directed to someone’s voice mail if the person they are calling isn’t at their desk. In this high-tech world, we believe a personal touch distinguishes our service.

Safeguard’s motto is ‘Customer service = resolution.’ We live it every day. It is embedded in our training, which every Safeguard employee and every contractor who works for us receives. When a client has a problem, it is our job to resolve it. That is why we come to work every day.
Q: Innovation is critical in order to keep from being commoditized. How do you innovate?
Our use of technology has allowed us to innovate on many levels. Because our work is performed in the field not behind a desk, we utilize handheld technology to provide real-time updates on the status of more than 1 million property inspections and 250,000 work orders that our contractors perform every month. This includes uploads of more than 25 million digital photographs monthly documenting work performed, which accompany electronic written updates and invoicing. Our clients have 24-7 real-time access to status reports on all of their properties under Safeguard’s management.

Another innovation has been our unique REO property model. REO stands for ‘real estate owned’ by the lender or investor after foreclosure. As a result of the mortgage crisis, more REO properties have come onto the market and remain on the market longer. Safeguard created a new model for maintaining these properties that separates the marketing and management functions, enhances their market value, reduces their time on the market and helps maintain the integrity of neighborhoods in communities hardest hit by foreclosures.

Q: What impact has this had?

This model has changed the way the industry services REO properties and has been adopted by large government agencies, such as Fannie Mae and HUD.

We also use technology to create as many opportunities as we can to listen, to exchange ideas, to resolve issues in a spirit of collaboration and cooperation. This includes industry conference calls, webinars and other ‘virtual meeting’ communications. There is a reason why we were born with two ears and one mouth. We need to listen twice as much as we talk. Innovation doesn’t come from sitting in a room alone and thinking up good ideas. It comes from interacting with people throughout our industry, listening to what a customer needs and finding a way to deliver it quickly, efficiently and with the highest quality.

Q: You’ve mentioned in the past that one of the keys to Safeguard’s success is the ability to ‘understand your client’s needs and bring them actual value.’ How do you glean this information from your clients and what strategies do you use to deliver the value they need?
Safeguard believes in bringing people together to open the lines of communications. None of us are smart enough to solve problems on our own. But working together, there isn’t a challenge we cant overcome. We meet face-to-face with our clients. We attend industry conferences where representatives from all facets of our industry are engaging in dialogue. We also host two of our own conferences each year.
The first is a National Property Preservation Conference in Washington, D.C. It is where we invite representatives from all areas of our industry to come together to raise issues and work to address them in a spirit of cooperation. Participants at our conferences include our mortgage servicing clients, government representatives from HUD, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, VA and FHA, the code enforcement community, and our competitors in the mortgage field services industry.
In August, we hold a vendor conference in Cleveland, and we invite our thousands of contractors from across the country. At that conference, we update our contractors on guidelines. We discuss best practices for maintaining and inspecting properties and give them an overview about major developments that will be impacting our industry. Importantly, our contractors hear from panels of experts that include our clients.
Q: Strong relationships seem to be at the core of your company’s success. How do you foster and strengthen those relationships?
Our clients are national. Safeguard is headquartered in Cleveland. We travel a great deal, meeting with our clients on a regular basis. We also hold regular calls with our clients — which we call ‘staff-to-staff’ calls — where the counterparts from Safeguard and the client interact, raise and resolve issues, and keep one another updated. After these calls, everyone receives a meeting summary, and follow-up items are identified and tracked.
We are active in our industry trade organizations and in the trade organizations that our clients are involved in. We support initiatives that are important to them. As an example, in Cleveland, we are actively involved with the Cuyahoga County Foreclosure Prevention Program. This organization has helped thousands of homeowners avoid the loss of their homes. As a company that inspects and maintains homes that are vacant and abandoned by homeowners facing foreclosure, we see firsthand the impact of defaults and foreclosures on families, neighbors and entire communities. We do our best to help raise awareness that homeowners in trouble can find help. We do what we can to encourage borrowers to reach out and communicate with their mortgage companies and to get help through the Foreclosure Prevention Program. There is no more important step a borrower can take to prevent the loss of their home.

How to reach: Safeguard Properties, (216) 739-2900 or www.safeguardproperties.com